Phones Are Smarter Than Ever, But Are We?


Tyler Cowen points me to a Washington Post story today about the fact that lots of people are confused by computers. Today, though, the computers are really small and we call them smartphones:

For [old fogies], there is nothing intuitive at all about manipulating data with their fingers, whether it be swiping screens back and forth, pinching to shrink an image, or entering information into glass. They typically worry that doing something wrong on the phone will cause it to self-combust.

This has always been the big problem with computers for non-power users: the fear of doing something that will screw everything up. Generally speaking, it’s overblown, and most people would be better off experimenting a bit more. Still, it’s hardly a trivial concern. I’ve been using computers for more than three decades, and even now I’m occasionally nonplussed by hitting some key combination or other that puts my computer into an unknown mode that I don’t know how to get out of. Thank God for Google, which almost always answers my questions.

Other issues aren’t nearly as mysterious as the Post thinks. A Harris Poll, for example shows that “just 5 percent of Americans used their smartphones to show codes for movie admission or to show an airline boarding pass.” That’s not surprising. A fairly small percentage of Americans fly or go to the movies regularly, and there’s really not much point in trying to figure out how to do something with your smartphone unless you do it a lot. Besides, getting a boarding pass or buying a movie ticket isn’t that hard in the first place. And what if your battery goes dead?

Anyway, I’m just the opposite. I’m thinking of getting a new phone, and although there are some good reasons for this (bigger screen, free tethering, etc.), it’s mostly just because I’m bored with my iPhone and I want to try something new. How about a Nokia Windows phone? My Windows tablet has turned out to be better than I expected, so maybe I should get on the bleeding edge and try it on my phone. T-Mobile will sign me up for $50 per month with a bunch of nifty features, and that would put me on the bleeding edge again since I have no idea if T-Mobile coverage is any good. But life is always better with a soupçon of risk and danger. Besides, screaming at your computer is very cathartic, isn’t it?

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WHO DOESN’T LOVE A POSITIVE STORY—OR TWO?

“Great journalism really does make a difference in this world: it can even save kids.”

That’s what a civil rights lawyer wrote to Julia Lurie, the day after her major investigation into a psychiatric hospital chain that uses foster children as “cash cows” published, letting her know he was using her findings that same day in a hearing to keep a child out of one of the facilities we investigated.

That’s awesome. As is the fact that Julia, who spent a full year reporting this challenging story, promptly heard from a Senate committee that will use her work in their own investigation of Universal Health Services. There’s no doubt her revelations will continue to have a big impact in the months and years to come.

Like another story about Mother Jones’ real-world impact.

This one, a multiyear investigation, published in 2021, exposed conditions in sugar work camps in the Dominican Republic owned by Central Romana—the conglomerate behind brands like C&H and Domino, whose product ends up in our Hershey bars and other sweets. A year ago, the Biden administration banned sugar imports from Central Romana. And just recently, we learned of a previously undisclosed investigation from the Department of Homeland Security, looking into working conditions at Central Romana. How big of a deal is this?

“This could be the first time a corporation would be held criminally liable for forced labor in their own supply chains,” according to a retired special agent we talked to.

Wow.

And it is only because Mother Jones is funded primarily by donations from readers that we can mount ambitious, yearlong—or more—investigations like these two stories that are making waves.

About that: It’s unfathomably hard in the news business right now, and we came up about $28,000 short during our recent fall fundraising campaign. We simply have to make that up soon to avoid falling further behind than can be made up for, or needing to somehow trim $1 million from our budget, like happened last year.

If you can, please support the reporting you get from Mother Jones—that exists to make a difference, not a profit—with a donation of any amount today. We need more donations than normal to come in from this specific blurb to help close our funding gap before it gets any bigger.

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